Advanced Nuclear Technologies Interdisciplinary Research Challenge 6: How might the widespread use of civilian nuclear power and associated fuel cycle facilities be made compatible with a world free of (or with a small number of) nuclear weapons?
In 2007, four distinguished American statesmen (George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn) wrote of their support of “a world free of nuclear weapons.” One year later, presidential candidate Barak Obama embraced this vision and, the year after that, President Obama expressed “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Advocates of the abolition of nuclear weapons believe that it would make the world safer and more stable. Others argue that a nuclear-weapons-free world would be less secure and less stable than feasible alternatives (e.g., markedly reduced numbers of nuclear weapons, greater transparency, elimination of “hair-triggers,” enhanced security of nuclear materials, etc.). Still others believe that global zero is neither desirable nor achievable.
Among the perceived obstacles to achieving and maintaining a world with zero (or a very low number) of nuclear weapons is the substantial and growing civilian use of nuclear energy. Ensuring that materials from civilian nuclear facilities are not diverted to military use is a central feature of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Facilities for enriching uranium can be used to produce low-enriched uranium fuel for nuclear power reactors and/or to produce highly-enriched uranium for weapons. Plutonium separated from used reactor fuel can be recycled to produce electricity or can be used to make weapons.
Substantial international growth of the use of nuclear energy surely would be accompanied by expansion of enrichment capacity, and probably also by expansion of plutonium separation capacity. The spread of these dual-use capabilities would exacerbate the challenge to achieving a maintaining a nuclear-weapons-free world.
How might the civilian nuclear enterprise be modified to minimize the risk of diversion of technology and materials to the production of nuclear weapons?
How might the civilian nuclear enterprise be modified to maximize the time required to produce nuclear weapons using diverted technologies or materials?
What technical and institutional measures might realistically be implemented to achieve acceptable levels of verification of non-diversion to weapons use?
How might the NPT realistically be modified or complemented to achieve desired levels of transparency and stability?
Blechman BM and Bollfrass AK, eds. Elements of a nuclear disarmament treaty: unblocking the path to zero. The Stimson Center: Washington, DC 2010. (Pages 57-116 are available to conference participants. You will need your Futures Network username and password to access these chapters. Reprinted with permission from the Stimson Center.)
Nikitin MB, Kerr PK, Hildreth SA. Proliferation control regimes: background and status. Congressional Research Service Report RL31559 October 25, 2012.